What Happens to the U.S. Midwest When the Water's Gone?

The Ogallala aquifer turned the region into America's breadbasket. Now it, and a way of life, are being drained away.

"Whoa," yells Brownie Wilson, as the steel measuring tape I am feeding down the throat of an irrigation well on the Kansas prairie gets away from me and unspools rapidly into the depths below.

The well, wide enough to fall into, taps into the Ogallala aquifer, the immense underground freshwater basin that makes modern life possible in the dry states of Middle America. We have come to assess the aquifer’s health. The weighted tip hits the water at 195 feet, a foot lower than a year ago. Dropping at this pace, it is nearing the end of its life. “Already this well does not have enough water left to irrigate for an entire summer,” Wilson says.

It is three days into January, and we are alone on an endlessly flat expanse surrounded by 360 degrees of pale blue horizon, not a cloud, not a tree in sight. We are 4,000 feet above sea level, the reason this is called the High Plains. The incessant wind that blew topsoil from the Dust Bowl east to the Atlantic Ocean and onto the decks of ships during the 1930s is unseasonably calm, although Wilson’s SUV is packed to the roof with gear for every possible weather calamity. On the field behind us, the spindly steel skeleton of a center-pivot irrigation sprinkler stretches out over brown earth like a giant sci-fi insect, dormant until spring.

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